Saving the earliest opera in English for the nation

19 November 2008

ErismeraThe Bodleian Library is appealing to the public to help raise £85,000 UNTIL 6 JANUARY 2009 to save for the nation Erismena, the earliest surviving score of an opera in the English language. Written by Pietro Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676), the leading Italian opera composer of the mid-17th century, Erismena dates from 1670s, 30 years before any other Italian operas were performed in Britain.

The manuscript has been part of a private collection, and has been studied by only a small number of scholars in the past 50 years. It is one of the most significant British 17th-century music manuscripts to have appeared in recent decades.

In August 2008, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Cultural Goods placed an export bar on Erismena’s sale to an institutional buyer abroad because of the manuscript’s ‘outstanding significance for the study of the history of music in the UK’. This may be the only opportunity for a British institution to acquire this vital part of musical and British history.

During recent research, Dr Harry Johnstone, retired Music Faculty lecturer at the University of Oxford discovered that Erismena was sold in 1797 at the auction of the library of William and Philip Hayes, who had been successive Professors of Music at the University of Oxford. The acquisition would make it possible for the music manuscript to return home to Oxford.

Eric Clarke, Heather Professor of Music, University of Oxford said: ‘The Erismena manuscript is a unique link in the history of operatic influence between Italy and England. The substantial manuscript is rare in being complete, and is of great historical significance in an area of research in which the University of Oxford has an international reputation. I give my full support for this appeal and I hope we will be able to save the manuscript for the future generations of researchers.’

Emma Kirkby, DBE, Honorary Doctor of Music, University of Oxford, said: ‘I am tremendously excited to hear that an entire Cavalli opera manuscript has survived - in an English translation, decades before Handel came to this country, and that there is a chance for the Bodleian Library to acquire this landmark of our musical history. I earnestly hope the means can be found to achieve this.’

Erismena is the earliest known opera manuscript to have been written in English and almost certainly dates from the 1670s, 30 years before any other Italian operas were performed in Britain. The importance of the manuscript is that it is written in English, by an as-yet unidentified hand. The manuscript is also unique in containing an allegorical prologue, which features a different cast of characters from those in the Italian libretto, and suggests that this English version may have been intended for a Royal audience.

Given the great research potential of the manuscript from both the musical and literary angles, the Bodleian Library would be an ideal home for Erismena. If acquired, this precious manuscript would sit alongside the earliest and finest manuscript of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, along with an unparalleled range of English 17th- and 18th-century opera and theatre music.

The Bodleian Library now has just UNTIL 6 JANUARY 2009 TO RAISE THE £85,000 needed to acquire this unique manuscript, and to conserve it for the benefit of generations to come.

The Bodleian’s Music Collections form the second largest research library for music in the UK. Apart from natural strengths in British music from the medieval period onwards, its collections cover music and its literature from many parts of the world.

There is strong expertise and interest in the history of opera amongst the staff of the University’s Music Faculty, and New College, Oxford, has just announced its permanent support for the post of Visiting Professor in Opera Studies. Furthermore, if the Bodleian were to acquire this treasured work, the New Chamber Opera would stage the work in Oxford as one of their summer productions, bringing the manuscript to life, for the enjoyment of the wider public.

Those wishing to support the Library in securing this important manuscript can do it online at Alternatively, contact:

Lois Hargrave, Senior Development Officer – University Libraries,
University of Oxford Development Office
University Offices
Oxford OX1 2JD
T +44 (0)1865 611553
F +44 (0)1865 611531

Back to top